The biotech industry's rapid response to COVID-19, a pivot of global scope, is driving a broad array of approaches to tackling the infection. On Monday, the first day of BIO's virtual convention, the trade group gathered some of the effort's leading voices to take stock of how those efforts are shaping up. It put a spotlight on work underway at Athersys Inc., Regeneron Inc., SAB Biotherapeutics Inc., Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. and Vir Biotechnology Inc.
Though executives from all five companies spoke to progress – even falling into bouts of collegial one-upmanship at times – a sober realism prevailed as they speculated about the potential for ongoing vaccines and therapeutics development.
No one yet knows whether COVID-19 vaccines in development will work, and if so, how well, said George Scangos, president and CEO of Vir and the leader of BIO's response to coronavirus. "Even in the face of vaccines, it could be that segments of the population would require other means to protect them from the disease," he said.
Antibodies, like those in development at Vir, might help answer that need, but "I don't think any single company may be able to produce enough," Scangos said. For that reason, Vir has already contracted significant manufacturing capacity with Samsung, Wuxi Biologics and Biogen Inc. and is already looking for more "so we're in a position to make millions of doses" of treatment, he said.
Similar efforts are underway at Regeneron, where President and Chief Scientific Officer George Yancopoulos said, "We think that the potential scale of the need before a vaccine and even after a vaccine could be very substantial." Though hoping against the outcome, he said it could be "a situation where the need is going to far exceed the total world [bio]manufacturing capacity." To that end, his company is trying to build on its own internal capacity of more than 200,000 liters even as it continues to manufacture its other products. That's left his team looking for alliances, both in the U.S. and around the world, he said.
Collaboration will be key to getting through not just this pandemic, but the next one, too, said Julie Kim, president of Takeda's plasma-derived therapeutics business unit. Looking back to the global SARS outbreak, she said a lot of great learnings from that time weren't put into play as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. A "lack of collaboration and lack of coordination amongst the governments was filled by the collaboration you see across the biopharmaceutical industry," she said.
Putting an even finer point on that idea during a morning plenary talk, BIO Chairman Jeremy Levin called out the importance of seeing industry "rise to the occasion," saying that "there is no amount of nation-first isolationism that can thwart a problem that's the entire human race's to solve."
Takeda's collaborative efforts to date have taken the form of building the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, a plasma industry collaboration established to accelerate the development of a plasma-derived hyperimmune globulin therapy for COVID-19. So far, its includes 10 plasma companies and a number of members outside that sector. Meanwhile, other collaborations have also taken wing, such as SAB Biotherapeutics' work to develop a COVID-19 therapeutic with CSL Behring and Athersys' long-running work to develop a treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome with Helios K.K.
"I think what we're witnessing right now is an unprecedented mobilization of companies and technology and capabilities on multiple levels, the likes of which we've never seen before,” said Athersys CEO Gil Van Bokkelen. Critics of the industry "have appropriately turned to us, our community of innovators... to solve a problem that, if we didn't exist, you wouldn't really have any hope for being able to effectively address," he said.
The moment before the industry, as panelists and BIO representatives all seemed communicate in one way or another on Monday, also presents an opportunity. As Regeneron's Yancopoulos put it, "I hope this is the moment that we can actually teach the world a lesson: I think that the world has largely forgotten that science and technology can really deliver the solutions to so many of the existential threats that we face as humanity, and as a society."